“Just give me my money.”
I had one hand out, the other on my hip as I waited for Earl to stop chewing on that damn toothpick and pay me what he owed me.
“You sure you want to leave? A girl with your-” Earl paused, giving me another one of his stares that made my skin crawl. “-attributes could make a killing with all the truckers and holy rollers who come in here.”
“I told you, I’m just passing through. Now I really need my money. My bus will be pulling out in ten minutes.” I knew he was stalling. And I hated standing there begging for what I’d worked for all these weeks. I’d endured the groping and the comments, not just about my body, but also my skin color.
“Gotta go in the back and look at my accounts book,” he said. “I gotta see what your expenses add up to. Let’s go on in the back to my business office-”
There was no way in hell I was going into Earl’s backroom. Many a female worker had been trapped back there trying to fight him off. “I’m staying right here.” I parked my butt on a stool near the cash register. The place was practically empty except for a couple of regulars and some guy I’d never seen before. “You can bring the book out. You’ve got five minutes.”
Earl gave a snicker before he shuffled off to his “business” office. I had a bad feeling that he’d come back and claim I owed him money instead of the other way around.
Maisie was cashing a customer out, so she kept her voice low as she gave the man his change. “Angel, he’ll never pay you fair and square. That book of his is just a list of all sorts of bogus charges. That’s how he operates.”
“He’s gonna pay me my money.” Before she could close the cash register, I snatched a couple of twenties out of the till.
“Angel!” Maisie hissed. “He’s gonna come after me if the register’s short.”
“No he’s not. Just take some of those receipts out of the box and stuff ‘em down your bra. He’ll never know the difference.”
“But I’ll know.”
“Maisie, you’ll never get from under his thumb if you keep working for pennies on the dollar. He’s a crook, and the only way to beat a crook at his own game is to be a bigger crook.”
“Never mind, you keep it.” Her hand closed over mine, and she gave me a squeeze. “I can handle Earl.”
The squeal of tires and the thud of boots landing on the ground had us turning towards the front window. It was the Gannon brothers, and I just bet Earl had called them. I was ready to run out the back door, but Earl was standing there with a smug look on his crater face.
Two overgrown bullies burst through the front door.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Arlen commanded, his words meant for me. He was a beast of a man, and he used his size to intimidate others. His older brother Ira was a little more reasonable. Ira just gave me a pained look from over the shoulder of his younger brother, silently urging me to just let it go.
“I’ve got a bus to catch,” I said, my voice shaky. I wanted to scream at him that this was a free country and people were able to come and go as they pleased. But not in this town. Not when most of the people residing here were either beholding to or were members of Deliverance Temple.
“That bus is long gone,” Arlen said. “I told the driver he had two seconds to pull off or I’d break every damn bone in his body.” Arlen seemed real pleased with himself. He hunched his shoulders, pounding a fist into an open palm, so I could picture the fear he’d put into that bus driver.
I think my mouth gaped open as I stared at him. I don’t remember reaching for my gun, I just know I heard chairs falling over and people scrambling to get out of the way. I guess they thought I didn’t know how to use the thing, but they were wrong. “I don’t wanna hurt you, Arlen. I don’t wanna hurt anybody. But I’m leaving, and you’re not gonna stop me.”
“Behind you,” a male voice warned, and I whirled around. Earl was trying to sneak up on me. He stepped back with his hands raised and a sheepish look after getting caught.
I wasn’t worried about him. It was Arlen I was afraid of. He kept moving forward, but not before glaring at the man who’d warned me. “This is none of your business. So if you wanna kept on living, you better get out, now, ya long haired freak.”
The man didn’t answer. He calmly broke off a piece of toast and swirled it around the runny eggs on his plate. He stuffed the food in his mouth, never breaking eye contact with Arlen while he chewed. Yep, he had a death wish. Arlen took a step his way, and I shot near his boot. “Leave him alone.”
Earl screamed something about me now owing him for the hole I’d just put in his floor.
Arlen gritted his teeth as he turned my way again. “Damn it, Angel! I’ve been patient with you, but no more!”
“Everybody just needs to settle down,” Ira said, still trying to play peacemaker. “Come on Arlen, you’re scaring her. If you’d just stop acting like you’re ready to rip her head off, she might listen to reason.”
I’d almost forgotten he was here. Ira was the brains of the duo. Arlen just had . . . well, Arlen didn’t have many deep thoughts. If there was something he wanted, he took it. And even though Ira had tried to shield me from his brother, Arlen wouldn’t take no for an answer. I guess it had never dawned on Arlen that a girl wouldn’t fall for his cave man act, even though he was good looking. Right now I just wanted to nick one of his ears, to scare him a little so he’d know how it felt. With his light eyes and dark curly hair, ever since I’d landed in this town people had been pressuring me to go out with him. I mean, why let a little thing like Arlen already being married stand in my way?
That stranger who’d given me a heads up on Earl was getting ready to go. He gulped down his coffee, giving off a satisfied burp when he was done. I kept waving my gun around, trying to keep Arlen, Ira and Earl guessing. The man threw some money on the table and then he picked up a bike helmet. Something told me that he just might be my ticket out of town. “Hey Mister, you got room on that bike for one more?”
Ira groaned and Arlen let out a roar. Before I could get off a clean shot, he tackled the stranger. Sure, Arlen was bigger, but the other man was quicker. I saw long blonde hair whipping everywhere, but somehow the stranger had twisted and grappled with Arlen so that he was on top and Arlen was on the bottom. Ira made a move, but I warned him to stay right where he was. There was loud grunting and fists flying, and the stranger began bashing Arlen with that helmet and few other things, like a chair. All I saw was Arlen’s legs twitching on the floor, until finally he stopped moving.
“You killed him! You killed my brother!” Ira hollered, his orangey tanned face as red as a tomato.
“He’s not dead. But when he wakes up, he’ll wish he was.” The stranger said, slicking his long hair back. His knuckles were bloody, and his eyes were so dark I thought they were black. “Miss, if you’re coming, then let’s go.”
“Move Ira,” I said, motioning for him to get away from the door. “You can tell Arlen I held my gun on you the whole time.”
Ira’s shoulders sagged. “But you didn’t shoot me, so it doesn’t matter. He’s still gonna kick my ass.”
I ran outside, the sun blinding my eyes as I looked for the stranger. After hearing the rumble of a motor I realized he was at the gas station. In the sunlight I got a good look at him. He wasn’t as big as Arlen, but he was plenty big enough to kick ass. He straddled that bike like he was riding a bull, and his vest had all kinds of patches on it. One patch was an evil looking skull with wings that proclaimed The Suicide Kings fear no one. “Lose the backpack,” he said. A bruise was forming under his right eye, and he seemed to be favoring the left side of his ribs.
“Can’t I put it somewhere on your bike?”
“No. And you see my license plate? It says gas or ass.” He started inching forward by walking the bike.
I tried to look innocent as I lied. “But I-I don’t have any money.”
The smirk on his face said it all. “I saw you take money out of that cash register, so you better hand it over once we’re clear of this place.” He paused, then added, “It’s either that or I’m gettin’ some.” One of his long, muscular legs did a windmill off the bike and I backed up, thinking he meant right then and there. Instead he popped open a compartment under the seat, snatching out an extra helmet.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. But right now I didn’t have much choice. Arlen was already conscious and stumbling out of the restaurant, with Ira propping him up. It was like something out of a horror movie. Ira used his free hand to point to us, and Arlen was lumbering over with his foot dragging, like some kind of zombie Frankenstein. Most men would be sitting down licking their wounds, but not him. Sheer meanness kept him going.
“Angel,” the stranger said. This time his tone was softer. “That is your name, isn’t it?”
I nodded, trying to will my feet to move.
“Get on. Whatever you’ve got in that bag isn’t worth a lifetime of regret in this place.”
He was right. There wasn’t anything of value in my bag anymore, not after I took out what I really needed. I got on behind him, scooting up close and locking my arms around his waist. He winced, and I apologized. “I’m Maddox,” he said, throwing his name out over his shoulder just before taking off, whipping up dust all around us. Ira was going on something fierce about his truck tires being slashed so I didn’t have to worry about them following . . . not yet anyway.
~~~~~End of Excerpt~~~~~